After being one of the more fearsome NHL teams in March, the Caps of April are scary in the other way — allowing their opponents lots of good looks at the net without putting up much offense at all in response.
Here’s one theory from JP of Japers Rink:
My working theory on the rise and fall of the 2021 Caps is that they had an early learning curve, then recharged with a week off (opponent COVID pauses) and tore through the next month-plus. But now the condensed sked has caught up with them, a bunch of olds, and they’re gassed.
— Japers’ Rink (@JapersRink) April 9, 2021
I can see where JP is coming from there, but I hate it, so I am going to pretend he’s wrong.
For example, maybe the Caps have made some tactical adjustments recently that are evidently not working. Also, maybe they’re starting to pay the price for some iffy leverage decisions.
For example, the forecheck appears more conservative lately, with more one-and-done attacks and less pressure on the opponent’s breakout. The intention there would be to sacrifice some of your offense to prevent a bunch of your opponent’s offense.
Except that’s not happening. Here’s how many high-danger chances opponents are getting per hour of five-on-five play.
The Caps have gone from being one of the best teams at protecting the crease in February and March to one of the worst in April. This was evident in the elite performance Vitek Vanecek was forced to give in the team’s 1-0 loss to the Islanders earlier this week.
(I shouldn’t embed it here, but HockeyViz subscribers might find the animated version of Washington’s opponent shot heatmaps over time provocative.)
I’m stuck wondering if this is a systemic issue depressing all lines and players similarly, or if maybe there might be personnel issues we should investigate.
To begin that conversation, I have pulled on-ice expected goals data from Natural Stat Trick for the team’s four centers and three defenders (Carlson, Orlov, and Jensen). The line graphs below show the difference in expected goals per hour when each player is on the ice. So if a line is above zero, that means the Caps generated offense than their opponents. This does not take goalies into account, and it’s a safe bet that this measurement underrates Washington’s offensive skill.
I’ve indicated in the graphs where the month of April begins. That’s where I want to focus.
First up are the centers.
Now on to defenders. I picked these three to represent the pairs as they seemd to have the least amount of overlapping time.
Did we learn anything? I honestly don’t know. I still think JP is onto something. Rest is warranted for some players — especially considering the aggressive schedule and all the young defensive talent waiting in the press box.
And I’m still confident that Washington’s meekness on the forecheck is a form of self-sabotage. It was well meant at the time: to stem the bleeding from one real bad game, but it has not worked and should be revisited.
Finally, it seems like some lineup experiments are ready to be ended. The Chara-Jensen pairing worked for a while, but it certainly does not right now. And despite Peter Laviolette’s cartoonish
sheltering optimization of Evgeny Kuznetsov, he’s still getting stuck in the defensive zone.
It’s time to make some changes.
Screenshot courtesy of NBC Sports Washington
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